Do you know why I love movies? I mean really, really love movies? I love movies because every once in a while, literally out of nowhere, a gem comes along that is so unexpected and so good that it makes up for all the disappointing, overrated, flabby or downright bad movies that one has had to endure. It is the unexpected gems that make it all worthwhile and restore my confidence in cinema. What We Do In The Shadows is one such gem. Bless New Zealand for having produced a comedy this witty and this dark!
Meet Viago, Vadislav and Deacon – three men who share a rundown home in Wellington, New Zealand who happen to be hundreds of years old because they happen to be vampires. Viago (Taika Waititi and the film’s co-director and co-writer) is the Dandy Vampire with the lisping Germanic accent and the film’s main narrator. Vadislav (Jemaine Clement, the other co-director and co-writer) is the dark and brooding Lothario Vampire (think Benecio del Toro with a goatee and seductive grin), a Don Juan of the night who happens to enjoy an occasional spot of torture. And Deacon (Jonny Brugh) is the Rebel Vampire, a layabout who is endlessly peeved at the world and who’s convinced he’s the sexiest man alive…or dead. And there’s Julian, a five thousand-year-old vampire who resides in the filthy basement, and who is genuinely scary as hell.
The film plays out as a mockumentary as the ‘documentary crew’ follow our intrepid vampires on their outings on the scintillating after dark streets of Wellington, replete with the obstacles and challenges that modern vampires must overcome. These include having to be asked into nightclubs (remember: vampires must be beckoned in by their potential prey), which the bizarre trio never are, of course; dates that go horribly wrong (“The jugular can be very tricky at times,” apologizes Viago after a particularly messy date with a young lass) and even local vampire hunters.
But amongst the funniest and most unexpected laughs are those that happen within the house, including Viago holding a ‘house meeting’ to berate Deacon for never respecting the house chores roster or doing the dishes (“Vampires shouldn’t have to do dishes”, snipes Deacon). Things really take off when Julian obligingly bites into Nick, a clueless dimwit who nearly blows their cover time and time again (“Hi. I’m Nick. I’m a vampire.”), but at least he gets them into nightclubs. Much bitchy snarling ensues in their ongoing turf wars with a pack of men who are the local werewolves (“What are we? We’re Werewolves, not Swear-Wolves!”).
Given the mockumentary construct, the low budget feel of the film feels appropriate. The production design, focused on the vampires’ drab and draped home, is smart and evocative. The cinematography is well-lit with just enough glow and shadows for the endless nights. What really drew me into this delightfully witty film were the endlessly funny quips (“Yeah, some of our clothes are from victims. You might bite someone and then, you think, ‘Ooohh, those are some nice pants!” enthuses Viago) and the knowing asides to the lore of vampires, werewolves, zombies and their like. The humour is tongue-in-cheek and droll without ever being smug or patronizing.
The screenplay, effortlessly executed by Waititi and Clement, is playful yet sharp. And there is gore. I can be very squeamish and I did flinch at times, as this film does have its share of spurting, gushing blood, but it never seems gratuitous – and it’s always grounded in the darkest humour. The acting by all is excellent, particularly by Waititi, with his perfectly pitched Mittel Europa accent, earnest politeness and ruffled dandiness. All of this results in a film that is bitingly funny (sorry, couldn’t resist that), always amusing and, oddly enough for a vampire story, even touching. Vampires they may be, but these are immensely human characters with humour, feelings and, dare I say it, heart. It is what makes What We Do In The Shadows such immense fun and such a surprising gem.
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